The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
When I was in my second year of seminary, one of my classmates died tragically from complications during a heart valve replacement surgery. Scott Schuller was only in his mid-20s, and a paragon of health. He just happened to be born with a heart defect that had to be fixed once he reached adulthood.
He wasn’t a close friend, but he was a good guy. Everyone who knew him was grieving. Most of us traveled to Scott’s hometown for the funeral.
There are a couple of things about that funeral I’ll never forget. One of them is the song two of my classmates sang: an acoustic version of U2’s 40. I liked U2, but I was a “greatest hits” kind of fan and had never heard the song before. It’s U2, singing their version of Psalm 40. The refrain stuck with me, crying out, How Long? How long to sing this song? how long, how long, how long?
That song unified us in our collective anguish. It wasn’t right. Our God was not supposed to let this happen, even though we knew things like this happened all the time. I thought back to the huddle of us at a table in the cafeteria, begging God to save Scott after we’d received the news of surgery complications and a lack of brain activity. It felt like each of our prayers, individually, went unanswered. Like God was saying, Nope. The world is cruel and awful and unfair and you’re not exempt from that as long as you’re on this side of eternity. In the peaks and valleys of the spiritual road we travel, that experience was deep in the valley of the shadow of death. And it did not, at all, feel like God was with me.
I’m reminded of that feeling when we get to this point in the church year, just a few weeks away from Advent, and our Scripture readings go all apocalyptic. When God’s message to us is not in the least bit encouraging or comforting. There’s going to be war, famine, destruction, desolation. And it’s all normal, all part of the plan. Don’t worry. Life is gonna suck. Buckle up and stick with me, God says.
And all the while, we find ourselves saying: How Long, O Lord? How long?
We will sing that song many times in the course of our earthly life. Whenever things are desolate, and God feels inconspicuously absent. I confess to you I’ve found myself saying it a lot over the last year. Not only because of desolation “out there,” but desolation “in here” too. There have been times recently when God has not felt particularly close to me personally. Prayer time was dry and dull. Perhaps it’s odd, or even upsetting to hear your priest admit that, but I think it’s important for you to know that clergy are not exempt from dry spells of faith. We know it’s all part of the longer journey, and that valleys eventually turn into peaks, but we walk through the valleys as much as anyone else does.
Psalm 40 is a wonderful expression of our yearning, our longing, our dreams for better times. How Long, O Lord, how long?
Langston Hughes asked what happened to a dream deferred, but today’s gospel asks what happens to a dream destroyed. Jesus’ disciples are beholding the beauty of Solomon’s temple, that majestic structure at the center of religious life in Jerusalem. And Jesus, a devout Jew, tells his followers that this physical symbol of God’s abiding presence will come crumbling down. A jarring warning to his faithful followers, to be sure. Solomon’s temple, the dwelling place of the Most High, was a sacred and seemingly infallible structure. By Jesus’ lifetime, it had already been destroyed once and rebuilt, an enduring house of worship on hallowed ground. How could this holiest of holy places, which God’s people had worked so hard to rebuild and remained at the center of their religious life, come crumbling down?
How many promises were made within those walls? How many faithful people had entered its gates pleading with God, brought their yearnings within the walls of the temple, and laid them down on the altar of promise? Only to feel like God’s answer was a distant nothing, or a resounding no, or just simply: the world is cruel and awful and unfair, and you’re not exempt from it on this side of eternity.
So much yearning, so much hope, so much promise, had been offered in this holy place. And Jesus promises that its walls would not stand. This holy place where people brought their supplication, their desperate dreams, their pleading, to God, one day would no longer contain those prayers. That violence and war will surely come, and false prophets will give rise to false hope and false promises in times of turmoil. The only promise Jesus gives is that difficulty lies on the road ahead.
Interesting, though, that Jesus doesn’t directly answer the disciples’ question. After he predicts the destruction of the temple, they want a timeline. “When is all this going to happen? When’s this dumpster fire gonna get lit, Jesus?”
And Jesus, infuriatingly, doesn’t tell them when. Instead, simply tells them, “stay the course, stick together, and don’t let yourself be led astray.”
When the disciples want to know how it’s all going to unfold, Jesus directs them to each other instead. They ask for a calendar; Jesus gives them a body.
“It’s gonna get rough; stick together on the road. you’re going to need each other.”
Back to Scott’s funeral:
Gathered in an auditorium-size church to collectively mourn Scott’s sudden, untimely death, many of us felt God was distant that day. And yet, as the singers continued their cry: “How Long, O Lord, How long?” they added something to our collective desolation. They added determination. Underneath the cries of “how long? how long?” was this sense of “I dare you, God, to let this be the last word. I dare you to be silent forever. We’re gonna still keep showing up, God. Because dammit, we refuse to let this break us.”
How long, O Lord?
I realized that God did not give us a direct answer to that question. There was no calendar of when the grieving and anguish would end. Instead, God gave us a body: the body of Christ. Fellow believers, gathered in community, holding onto their faith together so the grief and doubt and confusion wouldn’t let us get lost in the wilderness of despair.
God’s presence here at St. Michael’s has been undeniably real to me. I have felt it. The Spirit-shift that has taken place here through the pandemic, our reenergized focus on reparations, our commitment to feeding our neighbors, our small groups gathered to study burning questions about our holy Scriptures… the questions we ask and the outlook we shape, rooted in a real faith in Jesus Christ — I have seen and felt real evidence of God’s active presence here.
I wondered how I could trust that THAT was real — that I was really experiencing God’s presence — if I wasn’t feeling it so much on my own.
And, well… when we want answers, God points us to each other. To the body of Christ. That, my friends, is the power of Christian community. Not that we do nice things, or have interesting conversations, but that we find God here. Together. Where our cries of “How long” find their answer — not in a calendar, or on a schedule, but in a body. This body. Jesus’ body.
Where else could we expect to find God?